More than 'Thoughts and Prayers'...How to (really) help when tragedy strikes. (Part 1)
Four months ago our beautiful baby girl was born. We were about to send out the excited posts and messages saying 'she's arrived and mom and baby are both happy and healthy' when we realized we weren't. Turns out our sweet Izzy girl had a congenital heart defect that we didn't know about. She was blue when she made her entrance into the world and we were terrified. She was immediately transferred to Arkansas Children's Hospital where we'd end up spending her first month. We became all too familiar with the CVICU where she stayed hooked to so many beeping monitors and even more medical cords. We, thankfully, were eventually released and though she will likely have heart surgery in the future, she's fine for now and is finally 'happy and healthy'. Those days in the ICU though were so incredibly intense, traumatic, and bizarre. I know it was hard on our friends, family, and acquaintances too. I could see the discomfort and confusion in them when they saw my tear-stained face. What do you say to someone who has just had a baby, and that baby might have to have open heart surgery, that baby might die?
Just hours before she was born I wouldn't have known what to say or do for someone who has this kind of experience either. It's so weird and awful, right? What do you say, what do you do? Nothing seems like enough so maybe it's better to say nothing at all? I get it. It's awful and you don't want to make it worse and nobody is comfortable in these situations. And, let me tell you, too bad. Suck it up, deal with the awkwardness. You've got an important role to play. In tragic times like these the tribe simply must gather round and take care of their members in need. If you know someone that's in their darkest hour then that means they're part of your tribe and you've got a role to play. Just by knowing them you can help ease their burden. Thanks to the bizarre situation that we were thrown into, I can tell you what it's like on the inside, and I can tell you how you might be able to help. So let's look at what you should (and maybe shouldn't) do when someone you know is struck with tragedy.
1. First of all, when you say "You're in our thoughts and prayers." that's nice. It is, and it's helpful to see that a thousand times on various social medias. But what's nicer, what's more real, and more helpful, is to say something a little more specific to them and their situation. 'Thoughts and prayers' is kind of like saying, "Good morning, how are you?" or some variation. It's generic, it's a stock response, you're doing the social nicety but that's about it. It's great to say 'How's it going?', and it's great to say "Thoughts & Prayers". It's better than nothing but what can you say instead that means a little more? Well here's a real text I got from a dear old friend: "Love you guys and I'm here." It makes me tearful just reading it again today. It's not much, just a simple little message, but it's real. Real real, ya know? Like real. So take just a bit, say something from the heart, and definitely do say something! Being inundated with messages that first week is all that kept my head above water. I promise, saying something (real) matters and it helps.
2. Alright, so something should be said, but only by those who are close and connected right? "I'm just this person's (fill in the blank___) (Neighbor, third cousin twice removed, brother's coworker, etc) so I shouldn't get involved." Wrong! So wrong! It may sound weird, but some of the most helpful and comforting acts of kindness were from the most removed people we know. (Or don't know in some cases.) We set up a donation account (more advice on what to do when you're the one struck by lightning in another post) and we got some donations from the most random people. Literally some co-workers of my husband's sister sent us money. They have no idea who we are, nor we them. That simple act was so meaningful for us though. It meant that there are good people out there in the world. People who hear about tragedy and stop long enough to take an action, people who cared and who were supporting us though they barely knew who we were. Again I'm tearful just thinking about it. Other random kindnesses- my brother's church sent us a card, his business group sent us a gift certificate, friends of friends' friends on Facebook sent us messages. These are sweet random people who, in our hour of darkness, were nice to us just because.
I'll tell you why it's so moving- it restores your faith in humanity and your hope that life isn't just full of dark tragedy. When tragedy hits you feel like your world has crumbled and nothing is good or real anymore. When you're in your darkest hour those random acts of kindness from near strangers are so incredibly meaningful. They give you a little bit of light around the darkness. It's a really big deal.
So what does this mean for you? Well if you know of someone twice removed, or your sister's coworker, or best friend's auntie, that has had a tragic event, find it in yourself to give a little support. Send ten bucks, write a Facebook message (more than T's & P's). It'll mean more than you'll ever realize I promise, 6 months later and it'll be bringing the recipient to tears by just thinking of your small kindness.
3. What else? Well you can show up. Literally. Show up. Stop by the hospital, drop by the house. Be a physical presence when they feel like their world is spinning out of control. Now this step is a little harder, and it takes more time and effort and energy on your part. (Again, too bad, it's your job for having the privilege of knowing and loving people.) Sometimes when you show up the doctor will be rounding and you won't be able to see the person you're visiting, or sometimes when you try to meet them to drop off food they'll have fallen asleep and have to cancel. Again, too bad, this is your part of the burden to carry. And this is one area where there are some 'should nots'. For instance, you should not say that you'll come visit the hospital at a certain time, then have to reschedule or cancel or whatever cause your hair appointment got changed or bla bla yada yada. I promise you your tragic person does not have the energy to give a care to your little life complexities. It's hard to arrange meetings for the tragic person, it takes a lot of mental effort to figure out when and where and how they should meet up with you, but it's worth it.
Human connection and support is so incredibly helpful during these awful times. It's not worth it however if the visitors arrange and rearrange schedules and cause more headaches than you've already got. So the long and short of it is, don't make life harder on them. Yes, come visit, yes, show up, but keep it simple, keep your word, make it as easy and convenient on them as possible. That's your job, be supportive, show your face even when it's hard on you, and make it easy on them.
4. Stuff. Give them gifts. I know it sounds trite. But the little token items were something real and solid and helpful when it felt like we were lost in a hurricane. Again, just like the T's & P's, it's more helpful if this is something a little thoughtful and a little real. Nothing expensive is necessary, but real solid items are definitely helpful. Here's an example. While I was on an off shift one night some friends brought a little heart key chain and some essential oils to the hospital and dropped them off. When I got there the next day I was so heart warmed by finding the gifts. Those silly little items carried me through some of the darkest moments of my entire life. (Shall I get tearful again? oh yes for the millionth time).
I'm telling you though, the little things matter. So when you're trying to figure out what to do, or even if you should, please realize that you will make a difference. I can't emphasize that enough. Here's something that I think happens. Everybody says, "well, I'm not really important, I'll let the ones closer take care of it, I don't want to be a bother or be intrusive or step out of my bounds." The problem is, everybody says that at the same time, and the poor tragedy bound people are left all alone in their hour of dark cold misery. Please for the love of everything don't let that happen. Step up, do something, say something, be there to help carry the burden. You matter and they need you even as awkward as it feels and as far removed as you may be. You matter, they need you.
Alright, to recap: Say something, even if they're distant from you, show up, and give them something solid to hold on to.
There's more but we'll save it for Part 2.
Something else I have learned from this experience, and from being a therapist for so many years, is that no one gets to ride for free. Literally every single person I know or have worked with is connected to some sort of tragedy. So if you've been hit, and have some words of wisdom for the rest of us, please leave your thoughts in the comments. What was helpful? What do you wish you could have told the world? How can the tribe be there for those in need?